Dapper Days: A Visit to Midnight Sun Farm at Prairie Crossing

Captain Dapper is all about shopping local - whether for fashion or food.

I first became interested in local agriculture about 10 years ago. As with so many interests, it started with a book. Which book, I don't actually remember. But I do remember reading a book about food and health and thinking I should try to avoid buying my food in grocery stores. It was around that time that I was also starting my own small business designing handbags and accessories so I was feeling very stick-up-for-the-little-guy. Ever since then, I have tried to buy the majority of my produce and dairy at farmers markets.

I first met Nick and Becky, the couple behind Midnight Sun Farms, a couple of years ago at my local farmers market - Glenwood Sunday Market. Besides being nice, friendly folks, Nick and Becky's booth at the market is always full of the most delicious looking vegetables. Last summer a friend of mine joined the Midnight Sun CSA and, on the weeks when she wasn't able to pick up her share, I was there to reap the delicious benefits.  This year I decided to join the CSA myself and, I must say, I couldn't be happier with the service.

I've been talking about making the trek up to visit the farm for about two years now. Yes, seriously, two years of all talk and no action. Just about every week at the market I would say to Becky, "I'd like to visit the farm sometime." And she'd always say I'm welcome and we'd loosely make a plan but I'd never follow through. A couple of weeks ago I finally made a firm commitment to visit and came back with these photos, a lot of information and a slight sunburn.

Just an hour's drive north of Chicago, Midnight Sun Farms is located in the Prairie Crossing community near Grayslake. Prairie Crossing is a large sustainable development that includes housing, a working farm and acre upon acre of natural prairie land. The Prairie Crossing Farm is actually home to a number of farmers. Sandhilll Family Farm is the largest farm on the land. As Becky says, "If we were a strip ball, they’d be the Walmart and we’d be the Sunglass Hut." Along with Sandhill, there are five smaller farms that share the land and buildings as part of an agricultural business incubator. These include Midnight Sun, Radical Roots and Marigold Hill, along with a pig farmer and a goat keeper.

When I arrived early in the morning, I was welcomed by a chorus of clucks and squawks and ruffling feathers. There may be no sound more peculiar than a cacophony of chickens. Sometimes they sound like they're laughing and other times they sound like they're screaming at you.

It turns out that this is just one of the groups of chickens I would encounter that day. There are a few different sets of chicken that belong to the separate farmers at Prairie Crossing. As Becky walked me around the farm, we encountered one of her chickens wandering around outside the fenced area. This would have been my opportunity to get up close and personal with a chicken but I let Becky do the dirty work.

Although this farm isn't large enough to hold major livestock, there's still room for some pigs and goats.

Matt, the pig farmer, is in his second year at Prairie Crossing. While the pig section of the farm is definitely the most stinky, they're great animals to have on a farm. Since they like to root around in the dirt with their snouts, pigs do the work of a tiller naturally. They dig around looking for roots and bugs and other earthly delights, turning the dirt the way a tiller would. They also drop their fair share of manure along the way - hence the odor.

I don't have a lot of experience with goats so I didn't know what to expect. Let's just say it was love at first sight. Goats are adorable! And they seem very friendly. That they look like little stoners is very endearing.

Gretta, the goat keeper, keeps a relatively small number of goats here. She uses their milk for soap - soap that adored by Oprah. She would like to set up a full goat dairy operation but Prairie Hill lacks the facilities. For that reason, Gretta recently purchased her own farm west of Chicago. In will take a couple of years to get up and running but you can expect to see Gretta's Goats expanding from soap maker to full-on dairy.

After giving me a tour of the farm, Becky and I met Nick out in the fields for a little hands on farming. Although I've been a city boy for the past 20 years, I'm no stranger to farm life. I grew up in rural Midwestern towns and would often help my grandparents in their garden. So rolling up my sleeves and harvesting kale was like a return to my youth. That we were harvesting the very kale that I would find in my CSA share a few days later made it feel very homey. As I stood in the field, hunched over a row of kale, it was easy to forget that I was just an hour north of Chicago.

As part of the incubator at Prairie Crossing Farms, Nick and Becky are able to hone their farming skills and business acumen for up to five years. This year marks their fourth year at Prairie Crossing so they have their sights set on what they'll do the year after next. They'd like to remain in the Chicagoland area - not only are their friends and family here but the area is also home to numerous farmers markets, which are essential for keeping a small farm in business - but the pricing for land in the region may be more than a small operation can handle.

Having spent the day on the farm, getting to know the animals and seeing all the hard work that goes into growing the food that seems to magically show up at the market each week, I really appreciate what people like Nick and Becky are doing. In this mechanized world it's very easy to take for granted not only our food but the people responsible for growing it. So thanks, Nick, Becky and all the other little farmers out there!

Check out more photos from my visit to the farm in the slideshow above or click over to this Flickr set.


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